High school football previews: Week 13
Thomas County Central at Flowery Branch
When: 8 tonight
Where: Falcon Field, Flowery Branch
Radio: 1330-AM, 102.9-FM
Coaches: Thomas County Central, Bill Shaver; Flowery Branch, Lee Shaw
Records: Thomas County Central (7-4, No. 4 Region 1-AAAA); Flowery Branch (10-1, No. 3 Region 8-AAAA)
Key players: Thomas County Central, QB Adam Choice (5-9, 192 So.), RB/LB James Davis (5-7, 177 Sr.), Winston Codling (5-9, 160 Jr.). Flowery Branch, QB Kanler Coker (6-4, 210 Sr.), WR Casey Osborne (6-2, 180 Sr.), RB Jeremy Haley (5-8, 210 Sr.).
Outlook: Both of these teams won close games on the road last week to get to the second round.
The Yellow Jackets outlasted No. 3 Statesboro, 31-28, in overtime last Friday, and the Falcons shocked Johns Creek, 41-38, on a last-second Hail Mary touchdown pass.
Both of these teams were also tough draws for their opponents.
“They’re a No. 4 seed on paper, but that’s relative to their region,” Shaw said.
Thomas County Central hasn’t missed the playoffs since 1990, Flowery Branch has gone every year since 2005, and both teams have reached the state title game (both lost) in the last 10 years.
Similar pedigrees, but the teams win in very different ways.
The Yellow Jackets rule the ground with a split-back offense. Choice led the region with 1,386 yards rushing and 16 touchdowns on 176 carries, and Davis added 885 yards and eight scores on 133 carries. As a team, Thomas County Central scored 29 points per game with its efficient rushing attack.
The Falcons have a 1,000-yard rusher as well in Haley (1,236 yards and 19 touchdowns on 146 carries), but it is the passing game that differentiates Flowery Branch from its opponent.
While Coker is actually second on the team rushing with 617 yards and 13 touchdowns, his passing has led the way with 2,347 yards and 27 touchdowns on 144 of 238 passing. Osborne has 47 receptions for 764 yards and eight touchdowns and fellow senior C.J. Curry has 776 yards receiving and 11 scores. The Falcons have averaged 47 points of offense per game.
Statistically, Flowery Branch has been the better defensive team, allowing just 17 points per game while Thomas County Central has allowed an average of 26.
But the Yellow Jackets have been better as of late, allowing 27 points to Bainbridge and 28 to Statesboro, with both games being decided in overtime. The Falcons defense has allowed 38 points to each of its past two opponents after allowing as much as 30 points just once in the first nine games.
Prediction: FLOWERY BRANCH. The Yellow Jackets might be the toughest opponent the Falcons have faced yet, but the home team has proven that it can win a shootout, which this game could very well turn into.
FLOWERY BRANCH — Flowery Branch coach Lee Shaw remembers that first big win. It was in the first round of the playoffs in 2005 against a dominant Elbert County program.
Assistant coach Andy Mahaffey was a receiver on that team.
"Elbert County was a loaded No. 3 seed," Mahaffey remembers.
The Falcons had never been to the playoffs or even had a winning season in their short history until then, and found themselves down, 9-3, late in the fourth quarter.
Then quarterback Jaybo Shaw, now the senior signal caller at Georgia Southern, fired a touchdown pass to Devin Reed, the defense held in the last few minutes and the Falcons stayed alive all the way to the quarterfinals.
"That senior class did amazing things that year and I was lucky to be a part of it," Jaybo Shaw said. "That senior group laid the foundation that this is how it’s going to be, to uphold the tradition and make it to the playoffs every year."
The players haven’t stopped believing since, and the team has been back to the playoffs every season.
"It’s believing," coach Shaw said. "That’s what’s been so special around here. We continue to win big games because we never give up."
It’s been the case throughout the years, something the program’s only head coach has dubbed ‘Branch Boy Magic.’
In 2008 it was Connor Shaw, now the starting quarterback at South Carolina, to Robby Boudreau in the corner of the end zone with time running out to rally for a win over Ridgeland in the second round. The Falcons went on to reach the final before falling to Cairo in the Georgia Dome.
Casey Osborne was a freshman back-up safety on that team.
"It was big," Osborne said. "Just to be a part of the ride."
Three years later Osborne etched his name in Falcons lore in quite possibly the most dramatic win for the program — last Friday’s 42-39 win over Johns Creek in the first round of the playoffs.
This time it was Kanler Coker to Osborne with two seconds left, a Hail Mary pass that numerous players deflected and the senior wide receiver didn’t even see; he felt the ball and grabbed it as it landed on him while he lay on the ground in the end zone.
"That was definitely the biggest play I’ve ever made," Osborne said. "Although it wasn’t just me."
It was Coker to Osborne, and, just like Jaybo Shaw to Reed or Connor Shaw to Boudreau, it’s a play that won’t be soon forgotten.
It’s another appearance of ‘Branch Boy Magic,’ but it’s really just the team being ready for the situation.
"It’s a play that’s called a Hail Mary for a reason, you’re sending up a prayer," coach Shaw said. "But they felt like they could do it.
"Preparation met opportunity."
It hasn’t hurt that the Flowery Branch program has had a number of top-notch quarterbacks to make those crunch-time decisions and get the ball to their athletic receivers.
"It helps with Kanler as a quarterback; he can make the throws," Osborne said. "We’ve had good quarterbacks."
It was two-year starting quarterback Connor Shaw who delivered one of the program’s biggest wins in 2009, converting two fourth and long situations on passes to Boudreau in the final minutes to rally past Carver-Columbus 35-33 and advance to the semifinals.
"With all of the Division I talent they had, we figured we had beaten the No. 1 team in the state," coach Shaw said.
Coker displayed that resolve in the final drive at Johns Creek, marching his team down the field in just over 30 seconds.
The senior, in his first year at Flowery Branch, has struggled in the past two weeks, throwing five interceptions after throwing just two in the first nine games of the season. But he was perfect when it mattered, allowing Osborne to make the miraculous catch.
And just like the previous times that the Falcons have pulled a win from near-certain defeat, it’s given the team new life and a chance to go further into the playoffs.
They will play a team that is also coming off an unlikely win.
Thomas County Central came to Statesboro and upset the Blue Devils 31-28 last week in the second overtime, delivering Flowery Branch an unexpected home game.
"We were expecting to be on the road," Osborne said. "But it should give us momentum having the home crowd."
It means that the ‘road warriors’ slogan is no longer applicable, but the magic is still there.
"We just play with a lot of heart," Osborne said. "I would lay it on the line for anybody else."
He may have been a small piece in 2008, but this season the team leader in receptions is a key component on yet another Falcons team with the ability to be explosive and make the unlikely comeback.
"He does a great job of getting everybody focused, that it’s how you respond that matters," said Jaybo Shaw about his father and former coach. "They just go with that mentality that they’re going to come out with the win."
In 2011, there’s a growing pile of evidence proving that the Falcons have kept up that mentality that started in 2005.
"It’s a belief that it’s never over," coach Shaw said.
And it is that belief that has Flowery Branch still in the hunt for a state title, six years after that first incredible playoff win.